Inception Totem Explanation - Title

First and foremost, this is a spoiler ridden blog post. Beginning to end. If you haven’t seen the movie, you have wandered directly into the deep end of the pool without first getting your floaties off. If you would like to watch it – I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is definitely worth owning.  The extras are solid gold, the HD is completely off the hook and you also get a digital copy as well.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spun this disc while trying to answer questions that have come up on this blog.

Also, this blog specifically discusses Inception’s Totems only… if you want to discuss the movie itself, there is quite the conversation going on over here.  So let us away on our Inception Totems Explanation!!

Inception Totem Explanation - Cobb's Top

Cobb’s Totem – The Top

Early on in the movie Cobb asked to see Ariadne’s new totem and after demuring stated that she thought it an elegent solution for keeping track of reality. It was then that we learn that the entire idea of the totem was actually Mal’s.

Mal came up with the idea out of necessity to help differentiate between the dream world and the real world.  To that end, there were several rules to be observed with the totems – never let someone else handle your totem so as to keep them from controlling your perspective of reality by duplicating your totem perfectly.  The totem was also to be something small and intimate to you for reasons of portability.

Cobb’s totem is the top.  Basically as he describes it, it works fairly simply.  If the top stops spinning he is not in a dream.  If it continues spinning, he is dreaming.  Easy enough.  NEXT!

Inception Totem Explanation - Arthur's DiceArthur’s Totem – The Dice

Arthur – Ariadne’s guide through her beginning dream training – shows Ariadne his totem after she asks about them.  “Loaded Dice” he explains.  In reality they will come up as I expect them to.  In the world of dreams they will come up as anything but.  Arthur then explains that Cobb’s totem isn’t his at all, but Mal’s.  Mal is the one that came up with the device and after she died Cobb took them as his own.

Inception Totem Explanation - Ariadne's Bishop

Ariadne’s Totem – The Bishop

Soon before the Inception reverse-heist begins we see Ariadne milling something.  A golden Bishop.  Cobb takes an interest to the totem and asks if he can see it.  Ariadne demures and Cobb is impressed she is learning so well.  Never let another person handle your totem.  It is your only way to be sure no one has tampered with your perception and grasp on reality.  And with that little lesson tucked away we never see Ariadne’s totem again.

Inception Totem Explanation - Eames' Poker ChipsEames’ Totem – The Poker Chips

Our first encounter with Eames is at the Poker Table.  Cobb greets him with a hearty, “You won’t make them breed no matter how hard you rub them together”.  This is obviously a bit of a stretch, but it would make sense that Eames’ totem are his poker chips.  I’ve even heard it conjectured that in Dream World one poker chip will turn into two and back to one again.  Seems a bit of a stretch, but it is a dream, why not?  And now that brings us the most important totem of them all:

Inception Totem Explanation - Mal's TopMal’s Totem – The Top

Not fair!  I hear you crying.  You already did that one.  But, wait dear friends… no other totem is more important than this one.  This is the totem that began them all.  Mal is the creator of the idea of the totem.  She has need of a device that will keep her faltering belief in reality in check.  And so she devises a simple mechanism to inform her of her whereabouts.  A top.

A top that she cast aside when all her preparations for the final kick have been put in place and are ready.   The three psychologist’s signed witness statements a testing to her sanity are ready and waiting.  She’s pinned the blame squarely on Cobb for her murder by informing her lawyer of the threats he’s made against her.  All in order to get Cobb to jump with her and to head up to their children that are there and waiting for them to awaken.

As a recent Wired article so eloquently stated, all great literature is left open to the reader.  Similarly, all great movies are left open to the viewer.  Mr. Nolan has brilliantly weighted the evidence for and against the dream world conclusion so perfectly neither faction will ultimately know the answer.  But the evidence definitely is pointedly in favor of the dream world solution and here is why.

The totem is lying to Cobb

It tells him what he wants to hear.  It is his dream after all.  Everything else is controlled in this movie by Cobb’s psyche.  Even in other people’s dreams it is Cobb that dominates the dream with his head space and his perspective.  Runaway train in Level Two (more about the levels) – Layer one of the inception attempt?  All Cobb.  Ariadne sabotaging the inception attempt and basically dragging Cobb further down into the mire of dream layers?  All Cobb.  Limbo dream world?  Obviously all Cobb.  These dreams reek of our protagonist’s mental instability.  It seems odd we would think anything other than at least one more layer of dreams summoned by Cobb and controlled primarily by him.

And as others have noted elsewhere more eloquently than I ever could… why would you believe that a totem would work in the first place?  In a dream either your mind tells the top to continue spinning or your mind tells the top to stop spinning.  Its as simple as that.

I do believe that Nolan has conjured a very eloquent and tactile solution to the problem.  The interwebs are a buzz with discussions about what your totem would be.  (For the record, mine would be a modified heavier British Pound or a Poker Chip like Eames’.  Have you felt the brilliant heft of a nice clay poker chip – or a pound sterling?  Enough said.)  And well they should.  It is instantly recognizable and personal for every viewer of the movie.  But outside of a clever prop, I don’t believe that the totems work a lick.  Sad, but true.

The entirety of this movie is a dream.  A dream within a dream within a dream (seven total, at least).  And while that may tend to make most American viewers upset, I believe Nolan has stayed true to his artistic vision basically because, whether the epiphany is a dream or not – its still just as overwhelming and important as if it weren’t.  Having a cathartic awakening with your father as Fischer Junior did at Senior’s death bed?  Awe inspiringly real.  The rapturous feelings Cobb felt while waiting on the train track with his beloved – headed somewhere, though they don’t know where – enrapturing.  The walks shared in Limbo?  Precious.  That chats while building their childhood homes?  Treasured.  Cobb even says so much in answer to Ariadne, even if misguided.  “Why is it so important to Dream?”  Cobb replies, “Because in my dreams we are together.”

And ultimately Nolan’s metaphor of the dream is basically a thinly veiled allusion to the movie screen – to this huge techno-color canvass.  The movie is where we collectively share a common dream.  Where we shut down our logic cortex’s and visually succumb to the picture painted before us all.  And for that I tip my hat to Nolan for sharing his dream with us and causing us all to partake in this grand vision of collective catharsis.  Because I don’t know about you, but I was not right for several days after watching this movie.  My center of balance was thrown off and my perspective on reality was dumped upside down.  It was a great feat Mr. Nolan accomplished here and I am a better person for it.  Looking forward to the pleasant arguments below!  And remember that this post will make more sense if you read the Top 10 Inception Questions and the post that started it all, the 7 Dream Layers of Inception.

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111 Responses

  1. LeVar

    I guess an argument can be made but there are a few tells. When he dreams he is wearing a wedding ring. In real life he is not. In his dreams he can not see his children’s faces. In real life he can. In a dream you dont know where the dream starts. In real life you know how you got to where ever you are.

  2. adm

    Cobbs totem work like so: when a dreamer makes a dream they would make it as real as possible so as laws of physics tops will fall over but remember cobs top isn’t part of the dreamers top set its a top of its own kind which will defiy the dreamers laws of physics therfore there is no friction that would stop the top from spinning so it would just keep on going…its like how aurieadne (or whatever her name is) defiyed laws of physics by flipping buildings she was an outside objest so to sppeak.

    as for arthurs dice it will land on a number its loaded to every time in the ‘real world’ but in the dreeam it will land randomly each time because the dremer doesnt know what its loaded to land on and towards the end of the film he breifly stats he rolls it 3 times whith only 1 die

    hopefully that will clear up any totem confusion and sorry for extreme lack of periods.

  3. O. H.


    Just a quick question-
    If all of the movie is a dream, does that mean that everybody the worked with-Arthur, Ariadne, Eames, Yusuf, Saito and Robert Fischer etc- don’t exist? Is it possible that when Cobb was once in the Real Real World, that he saw these people’s faces and subconsciously incorporated them into this huge dream of his?


  4. bugattiforlife283

    Too many Brits here lol. I believe the totem works and I have one myself, a small green glass egg. I haven’t got a chance to try it in my dreams yet, but like the top, it never stops spinning in a dream. Btw this movie is AWESOME. Saw it 4 frikkin times alrdy love it. Say aye if u are with me about the totems really working

  5. O.H.

    Oh and also, if Cobb’s dreaming the whole time, why doesn’t Mal keep showing up in the ‘reality’ of the movie? Is it because Cobb believes Mal is dead because she jumped off the building in THAT dream level?
    Thanks 🙂

  6. Thored

    My thinking is that the top was purposely unbalanced to stop spinning rather quickly. A perfectly balanced top on a smooth level surface can easily spin for a minute or more.

    The “kick” in the snow fortress level was the compound collapsing. Ariadne jumped off the building to kick herself up to the snow fortress. Eames had to defib Fisher because he had died and they needed a way to “revive” his body. The building collapsing kicked her and everyone else back up to the falling elevator to kick back up to the van to kick when they hit the water.

    The other thing I would like to point out is that Cobb’s kids at the end of the movie are clearly older than they were in every other scene in which they appeared.

    And the final piece of evidence that tells me that he was in reality is this. If Mal killed herself and left him in a dream, why didn’t she come back to get him when he didn’t come out? It would have been easy enough for her to re-enter the dream and attempt to convince him that he was in a dream. But, to the contrary, in the original “level” the movie takes place, we never see Mal there. We only see her in the lower levels.

  7. Aknot

    I really hate to do this however your explaination of the use of the totem is incorrect.

    First off it is Arthur that explains the reason behind the totem:
    “So when you examine your totem…You know, beyond a doubt, that
    you’re not in someone else’s dream.”

    The only person that suggest it is a reality checker is Adriande and her being new to the whole concept of totems would have me second guessing her knowledge.

    Cobb never states: his totem spins forever in a dream.
    The statement is: “This one was hers. She’d spin it in a dream and it would never topple. Just spin and spin…”

    That means (based on the movie) she made it spin forever AND locked it away as she lost/wanted to lose grip on reality.

    I actually just posted a nice explaination of the totem on my site/blog. Feel free to check it out.

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  9. Mad Cow

    Eames’ totem is his watch. It changes from brass to silver in the dream. This subtle change is too consistent to be a coincidence. Yusuf’s is his reading glasses. He does not require them in the dream even though he needs them outside. It seems that the totem does not need to be an object used to test the physics in the dream, it’s a personal object that the owner knows well but the architect, or dreamer, is uncertain of.

  10. Nick

    hi, there, I was looking for a quick explanation for some points of the movie, so I would not have to see it many times till all my doubts, old and new ones, were answered.
    While reading about the totems, if I understud right, what you suggest is that it doesn´t matter if they do work in a dream or not because the mind of the dreamer (or people involved in the dream) could be playing tricks on itself. Although, I guess that the idea of the way totems work in a dream, is different. If I am in a dream and I want to check if it is real or not, I would not try, for example, to make the top stop, I would try to make it keep spining. If it stops even when I wanted to keep spining, then there is no doubt it is not a dream.

  11. Taylor

    Holy Crap… there are over a 100 comments on this post. Hahah. I became unsubscribed to this blog post somehow… I haven’t been out here since 2010? hahahaha. Makes me giggle for some odd reason.

    There is no way I’m going to be able to respond to 30 comments in one go. Just isn’t going to happen. Looks like you guys are doing a good job responding to each other! hahaha. Sorry again for going awol on this conversation. Not sure how that happened.

    Let me explain – no, there is too much, I’ll sum up. I personally don’t think that the top stops at the end of the movie. That being said – I have some explaining to do for the times in the movie when the top DEFINITELY is shown to stop. Either a) Cobb goes into a dream state halfway through the movie (India being the most obvious choice) or b) The totems are not reliable.

    As I believe the ENTIRETY of the movie is in a dream state (not the former, rather the latter) then I must not believe that the totems are reliable. Right? And so, in my mind, I believe it is fairly dependent on the person housing the dream. If its Cobb’s dream and everyone else is dreaming within Cobb’s dream, then his reality impacts the results of the totem(s). If it’s Mal’s dream… likewise, she would impact how things play out and thus how the totems react.

    So I personally believe that it was Cobb’s dream… that Mal was able to drop out of his dream by committing suicide. And Cobb refuses to believe that it is a dream at all… and thus his subconscious forces the top to stop… when in fact it was still a dream.

    Just sayin.

  12. Jane

    If you could have an object as your totem – put in your pocket in real life and expect it to be there in the dream as well (Then use the object’s behaviour to determine if its’ reality or a dream state) – you could carry a piece of paper as your totem, write “Entering so-and-so’s dream at this time and this place”…..
    Why would people make complicatedly designed objects as totems ?

  13. Taylor Holmes inc. » Blog Archive 7 Layers of Inception

    […] Welcome to 7 Layers of Inception!  But before we begin, allow me the courtesy of informing you, that if you have yet to see Inception, please click the image there —> and purchase it directly. (not to mention that your simple click helps me continue writing great new content!) I cannot recommend the movie highly enough (as indicated by this OCD like post), especially on Blu-Ray. It is a sight to behold.  Also, if you are confused on how the totems work, you can find a great discussion about them over here. […]

  14. Gabriel

    Great work, really in depth.

    The only thing I’m not sure about it all being in Cob’s dream is that Mal says that Cob’s being chased around the world by anonymous cooperations, like the militarised projections in a dream. This confirms the theory. But if that’s true, then how can Saito stop the organisations from perusing Cobb, as he does to repay Cobb for performing inception. That’s a bit I’m a bit unsure about.

    Despite all that I find myself believing in your theory, it’s also confirmed further for me when they go to see Yseuf, the chemist, and they go down to his basement to see the effects of the sedeuctives. Eames asks if they come her every day to sleep. The old man looking after them replies:
    “No, they come her to wake up. The dream has become their reality.” He then continues to Cobb “Who are you to say otherwise, son?”

    I’m not totally sure if this confirms you theory or just means Cobb has been very confused.

    Please explain the quotes. Thanks 🙂

  15. Andy

    I thought I’d check out your Inception analysis. Did not read the comments though. So of course you’ve probly all talked about how the movie is about moviemaking. Cobb is the director, Ariadne the screenwriter etc. The films biggest criticism is that there’s too much exposition. If you’re watching it purely as an action movie or just paying attention to the surface then yes there is a bit too much exposition.

    Where this film thrives is these exposition scenes though. They function as exposition for plot and the rules of the world, but also Cobbs subconsicious. The whole movie is a dream I believe which is why the exposition and rather “nomal Lines’ are interesting. Watch it again and pay attention to Ariadnes questions. Cobb is questioning himself. All the characters are part of Cobbs mind. Most of the conflict can attributed to Cobb fighting himself.

    BIG THINGS EVERYONE MISSES. Not sure if anyone above pointed these out.

    Think about everyone’s totem. Arthur’s loaded dice in the real world would always land on the same numbers. In a dream they would work NORMALLY.

    Eames poker chips are spelled incorrectly in the real world. His coin reads Mombassa. In a dream it would say Mombasa which is the correct way. It is actually NORMAL in the dream.

    Cobb’s is not however. In the real world it will stop spinning and in the dream it will keep spinning which IS NOT NORMAL.

    Cobb says to Ariadne that you should never tell somehow your totem works. Then he tells her how his works! She designed every dream in the movie so he will not be able to tell if he’s in a dream or not.

    The totem is wrong and has no value to the audience actually! At the end of the movie it doesn’t matter if it falls or not. You CANNOT trust it.

    Cobb has been in a dream since when Mal escaped or what he thought was suicide. They were experimenting with dreams within dreams. So after they left limbo they wake up not in reality but the next level up! Mal was right.

    To go even further. Note that in the dreams, part of the subconscious seep through from level to level. Numbers mostly. But also note that the movie starts in Saito’s dream which is a house on a cliff. Now fast forward to the end. Everyone is paying attention to whether the totem falls or not but in the top of the frame Cobbs is talking to his kids. Turn on subtitles and you’ll see Cobb asks “what have you been doing” to which the kids respond “building a house on a cliff”. Cobb is still dreaming and he will be for ten years in Saito’s mind.

    There’s even more theories in this film than The Prestige but just like the machine not actually working in the prestige (the correct answer I believe) Cobb is still dreaming in Inception and the movie is far more clever than people think. I also like the idea that Mal is performing Inception on Cobb with Ariadne.

    Ultimately the brilliance of the movie is that NOLAN performs Inception on everyone and noyone even knew it. So yes Inception is possible. Nolan did it too the whole world.

  16. Hans

    my theory

    you can’t read, use phones or switch lights in a dream.

    so it’s not about real dreaming in real life at all. the maker gives us a different concept of dreaming. because he doesnt explain his concept fully no1 will ever be able to prove wether the whole movie was a dream in the first place or not. if the top in the end would fall within reasonable time.

    if the movie went on for 5 minutes and cobb would walk back in, he would still be in a dream, but in whose and in what layer can’t be decided cause there isn’t enough information.

    the problem for cobb is (in this smaller made-up concept of dreaming) the top would never be able to answer the question wether he is dreaming or not. it can only give 100% proof of him, or someone else, dreaming.

    you cant make your subconscious pay no attention to the top, so even when it falls it might be due to some part of his subconscious. in the film there is no proof of ‘deepest layer’ of subconsciousness.

    so in the movie with the, narrower than in real life, concept of dreaming cobb wont ever be able to find out wether he is dreaming or not, nor in whose dream he is, nor which layer. even with the top falling.

  17. Hans

    the question about if we live in a real or dream world isn’t his, but comes from filosophers throughout history.

    it can’t be proven either way.


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